Back in July, Matthew Evans neared the end of a two-day, 500-mile trek through Virginia forests and got his first look at the 65-foot red spruce. He took his time, examining it from every angle, studying its branching habits and needles, wondering all the time: Could this be it?
After considering several other candidates, Evans, landscape architect for the U.S. Capitol, decided that the proud spruce from Highland County was perfect. He anointed it the first Virginia tree to grace the Capitol lawn for the holidays.
"Trees are like people," he said. "We're all Homo sapiens, but we all look different. Each tree has a little different personality. "
Evans said Virginia's tree has a particularly noble demeanor, with strong, sturdy branches. That's important, because the tree will be required to shoulder about 10,000 lights and 5,000 oversize ornaments crafted by the state's schoolchildren.
A massive tree has stood in front of the Capitol each Christmas since 1964. Since 1970, the tree has been selected from the depths of national forests, with states taking turns for the honor. Virginia's tree hails from the George Washington National Forest, a 1.1 million-acre expanse that stretches from Winchester south into Alleghany County in Virginia, where it runs into Jefferson National Forest.
"This gives everyone in Virginia a chance to get excited about the holiday time," said Donna Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Holiday Tree project. "It's an excellent time to highlight the commonwealth, our history and our natural resources."
Christmas tree farmers across the state will donate 70 additional trees to be displayed at government office buildings.
Wilson said U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service workers scoured the woods for weeks, sending in suggestions for consideration. Two forestry employees then visited every candidate, crossing them off one by one until they had whittled down the list to six. Then they called Evans.
(For the record, the Forest Service news release lists the tree's height at 70 feet.)
Evans would not be goaded into declaring the tree, the 10th he has chosen for the Capitol, the best ever.
"I'm going to be a diplomat," he said when asked to compare the spruce to Christmas trees past. "This is an excellent East Coast representative."
Last year's tree was cut in Idaho, and the previous year's, in Oregon.
The Virginia tree -- whose current location is being kept secret to thwart potential poachers -- will be cut in November.
Then it will go on tour, traveling the state strapped to a festively decorated flatbed truck, its branches sealed tightly in shrink wrap and its trunk surrounded by a water-filled bladder. Alexandria, Manassas and Leesburg are among the 34 communities scheduled to receive a visit.
On Dec. 6, the tree is due to arrive in Washington, where it will strut its stuff until shortly after New Year's Day. Then, its mission complete, the ornaments will be taken down and donated to local schools. The tree itself will be reduced to mulch and spread throughout the flower beds that surround the building, said Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the architect of the Capitol's office.
"It never really leaves the Capitol grounds," she said.